On the Ground

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

The phrase “on the ground” morphed into cliche eons ago. There are no signs, though, that it is fading from the language. Instead, more and more of our newscasters, policy makers, military leaders, and talking heads use it. When they do, they establish the vast distance between their insulated offices and those who are face to face with the consequences of disasters, war, and political decisions.

I am not a fan of this phrase.

However, if used literally — if used, say, to describe what I have found when I looked at the actual ground, I can feel the words perk up. The phrase “on the ground” straightens its shoulders and does the simple yet useful job it was always meant to do.

I found this orange on the ground as I trudged in unseasonable heat near my stepdaughter’s house. I was thirsty. I had looked longingly at the branches full of fruit hanging just out of reach over the walls that lined the sidewalk. I heard a muffled “whump” and looked back, then down. There it was.

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When my feet move along the surface of the ground, I can read the changes through the soles of my shoes. There is the give of a dirt path, the unyielding concrete of a sidewalk, the slippery squish of wet leaves, or the grit and sink of walking in sand.

Look down and the ground becomes a canvas that stretches out in all directions. Camellia blossoms die a beautiful death in one corner.

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A sunny sidewalk captures the shadow I make when I walk my dog and reminds me that I really must look insane in that hat.

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A walk in Balboa Park reveals a message scrawled in chalk that makes me wonder how it was answered. I’ll never know.

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And of course the ground is peppered with the scuff marks and foot steps of those who have traveled before me. Their prints are there along with the scratchings and droppings left by birds, lizards, rats, dogs, or other animals that share common ground with me.

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I think sometimes of people who lived here years before any of us did and relied upon the signs they found on the ground that led them to food or helped them to avoid danger. When I think about this, I feel the vast distance that still exists between me and all that lives beneath the soles of my well-shod feet. Walking on the ground still keeps me well above it. Perhaps I’m too quick to dismiss the news anchors, talking heads, and the others who operate far away from the consequences of all of the ways we humans mark our ground.

What Nadia Wanted

Her name was not Nadia which means hope or desire. She was named for a mythical bird whose feet never touch the ground. Her privacy is important, though, so Nadia it is and, like her given name, it fits her.

She did hope. She did desire. And her feet never touched the ground for the entire hour I knew her.

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My husband and she began talking in the line at Phillipe’s one Sunday afternoon while I secured a table. We were there to grab a French Dip before a Lakers game. She too was there to buy a sandwich but seemed a little confused by the options.

I saw them laugh. Then I saw my husband point and begin to describe the choices — I know this because even though I couldn’t hear them, his hands described the shape of the bread, the dipping of the bread, and the layering of lamb or beef. He is eloquent with his hands.

She smiled up at him. I wasn’t jealous because as attractive as she was – with her swirl of auburn hair, eyes the color of rain-soaked cypress bark, and a lush Ava Gardner mouth – I was only fifteen feet away. And she was in a wheelchair. The gleaming motorized chair made it safe to admire her, easy to be happy that she’d found my husband to help her. Easy to assume lots of things that turned out to be wrong.

He glanced up to look for me and I waved. I knew we would be having company for lunch. I saw him lean down and carefully take her wallet. He plucked out some bills, handed them to the cashier, and returned the change and the wallet to Nadia who had trouble holding onto it. Then he picked up a tray with three sandwiches and she followed him to the table I’d found.

Minutes later any notions that we were being charitable skulked away. Nadia wasn’t interested in making us feel good about ourselves. She was only mildly interested in the sandwich my husband cut up and set before her. She wanted more. Much more.

“You have a good man,” she said after we’d established that we were the same age, she was married with three grown children, had emigrated to Los Angeles years before, had recently earned a degree in social work, and had muscular dystrophy. Her condition was another reason her sandwich lay between us mostly untouched. The mechanics of lifting a piece to her mouth and then swallowing without difficulty were arduous and time-consuming. She could eat it later; now she wanted to talk. She fixed her beautiful eyes on me and leaned closer.

“Are you in love with him?”

I didn’t have to think but I did have a mouthful of lamb sandwich. “Yes,” I told her as soon as I’d swallowed.

“What does it feel like?” she asked.

At this point, my husband disappeared from my peripheral vision. I don’t know if he left the table or simply leaned back to give her, and himself, the illusion of privacy.

“What does love feel like you mean?” I asked her.

Nadia’s fingers wiggled dismissively on the arm rests of her chair. “Not family love, not friendship. What does it feel like to kiss romantically, to want to go to bed with a man?”

What words to use? As I struggled to answer her, she told me that her husband was much older. They’d been engaged when she was thirteen, married when she was fifteen. “I ran away when my parents first arranged the engagement.” She loved school and wanted to finish. Agreements were reached and she married at fifteen. Three children were born, two sons and a daughter. All left their country at different times and gathered in a hotel before making their way to the United States. In that hotel, she fell the first time. The diagnosis came shortly after. Over the years, her disease progressively worsened until she could do little for herself and depended on her husband, her children, the caregivers who came every day to help her bathe, dress, and eat. Her husband worked nights and slept during the days. He was home as she spoke, she said, sleeping.

“I am lucky. He has been good to me. He never left me,” she said in the way someone recites a prayer they have said so often they no longer hear the words. “But it is not love. It is not romantic love.”

Her caregiver, she told me, was divorced and had had three boyfriends in the time she’d known her. There was always something dramatic, something romantic going on for this woman.

“I want that,” Nadia said. “I am not too old.”

No, she wasn’t.

Nadia wore the evidence of love bestowed. Caring, experienced hands had styled her hair, traced her eyebrows with pencil, colored her eyelids with the right shade of shadow and not too much of it. I thought of the daughter who she said visited her often and worried whenever her mother left the house and how Nadia had managed to leave the house anyway, to get a degree in social work, to ride a bus from a nearby city to Phillipe’s just to taste a sandwich she’d heard about on television. I thought of how easily she had engaged my husband and how naturally it came about that she joined us for a meal. She attracted people. It was not surprising when she told me that she had attracted a man in one of her classes.

“We talked all the time. We both knew there was something there but he said to me that going any further was pointless. It was impossible.”

For anyone else those moments might have been idle flirtation, a chance at a few dates, or even the beginning of a love affair that would soar, or crash and burn. For Nadia it was a whiff of what she wanted and believed she would never have.

I decided not to say what she so clearly understood and had probably heard before: that she was fortunate to have a loving family, that there were deeper kinds of love, possibly better love, that love born in desire and passion can sometimes leave us emptier than when we started. I didn’t say that love — any kind of love — was a crap shoot, a matter of luck as much as anything and that even people without a debilitating disease can wander their whole lives and never really find it.

Nadia wasn’t asking to be told what she already knew. She wasn’t asking for guarantees. She just wanted to the chance to try it herself. Failing that, she wanted to know from another woman what it felt like to be passionately kissed, to be held by a lover. With the directness of someone who knew there wasn’t much time for niceties, she asked me, a stranger she would never again see, to tell her.

I did my best.

The Edge of the World

 “Home is everything you can walk to.” 

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On February 7 I sat down for the tenth time to write a blog post about my walks. I consulted my photos. I consulted my notes. Then I consulted the tally I’ve been keeping (or trying to) and found that another two or three miles would put me at nearly 16 miles for the week, a first for me and exactly the number I need to average in order to make my goal of 800 miles by the end of this year.

Through my window, I saw the sky had already softened. The marine layer crouched on the horizon ready to enfold the sun as it sank into the Pacific.

My hands slipped from my keyboard. I got up and walked down to the edge of the world.

This is how I’ve come to think of the cliffs that run along the ocean a few blocks from my house. When I started out last month, my feet took me there without asking. It is the place I first walked after moving here nearly fourteen years ago before the boxes and furniture had even arrived from New Jersey.

I recall the moment I turned left at the bottom of the hill and almost forgot to breathe in the middle of all that blue above me and at my feet. I braced against the joy that stole over me, the way I used to when I was on vacation and had to remind myself that I’d soon be going home.

Then it hit me. I was home.

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I don’t know how many times I’ve walked along the cliffs since then. There were the times when we had two terriers who lunged after the seagulls instead of the single, elderly girl who doesn’t often make it down the hill. There were the times when people came to visit and we would all troop down at sunset to watch the show. There were too many times when I decided that I’d seen all there was to see there, and just kept my head down and thoughts to myself as I headed out the door on an errand.

When I set out on my inaugural walk of the year and for this project, I believed I was starting with the familiar cliffs just because they were close and easy. Then I learned they are not familiar at all; they are shape shifters, sirens. The world of the cliffs alters with the light, the tides, the surges of people who visit with their dogs, their surfboards, their car stereos. The surges of storms that start somewhere near Hawaii.

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As I walk along them, edging closer and closer to the chapped lip of sandy path high above the water, I see for myself how fragile the cliffs are. They slope and crumble towards the water that swirls below. They make no promises to those of us who are traveling along the path, or the barefooted surfers who run past the warning signs and down the sides like amphibious goats, or even those who simply come to park and look. There are deaths here every year. People tumble off. Surfers who are not from around here find themselves trapped in an unpredictable winter ocean, unable to ascend the cliffs.

Still, they are holding me these days as I make my way along them and into the rest of Sunset Cliffs National Park. They also hold surprises. Here are a few they offered me: an art installation, a bride and a groom, a piano concert on a late Sunday afternoon.

Before I do, though, here’s an update on my trekking. In January: 47 miles. February: 16 (so far). I have a few thoughts about the counting and the measuring not to mention the shifting landscape in my body and my mind which I hope to touch on soon. The problem is, the more I walk, the more I want to walk. As I type these words, I’m stealing glances out the window. My feet are squirming in the slippers I wear around the house. Maybe this is the enthusiasm of a newbie. Maybe it will wear off. Guess I’ll find out.

It’s time to get out there.

Art on the Edge of the World

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Love at the Edge of the World

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A Man, His Piano and His Dog: Beautiful Music at the Edge of the World

Late in the Day at the Edge of the World

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Fixing to Walk. Care to Come Along?

“But the beauty is in the walking — we are betrayed by destinations.”
― Gwyn Thomas

These shoes were made for walking. It's time to break them in.

These shoes were made for walking. It’s time to break them in.

A palm reader once told me I was one of those people who didn’t need to travel to learn about life. I was one of those people, she said, who understood that all life contains could be encountered in her own backyard.

This is a good thing because, although movement and travel have been part of my life, home has been the bigger part, especially since I began working out of my house 12 years ago. The more I am here, the more I am here, is how it seems to go.

In my last blog post, though, I outed myself as a yearning walker. A pilgrim in search of a journey that was not just metaphorical.

I wrote that a woman sometimes “needs to let in the wind, rain, sun, and to feel the blisters on her feet harden. She needs to let her body lead her sometimes and to trust it no matter her age.”

It appears that I am not alone. Since writing that post, I have been involved in conversations on email and Facebook with other women who travel hundreds of miles by foot whenever they can or who have been thinking a long time about starting out on a pilgrimage. Each woman has her own reasons, her own goal. Some have called themselves “wanderers” rather than walkers.

The common thread seems to be that we all see the difference between a direct encounter with our physical world and rolling through it in a car or flying over it. Some of us know a certain restlessness that sharpens in the wake of passing time. Some of us want to sink into the world instead of our smart phones or our busy-ness and just see what happens. One writer, not a walker, said something the other night that resonates with me still: “I want to live in my story. I’ll know then what there is to write, if anything.”

But.

This has been a significant year in my life journey. Good news came in the form of a book deal. A new novel is starting to emerge. This is the work I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid. To do it right requires as much planning and being present as preparing for and starting any kind of extended journey by foot. Much is going on with family and friends I hold dear. On top of that, my body delivered a bruising reminder during the holidays that it can limit my plans, or at least my ability to execute them, at a moment’s notice. Ironically, I fell ill the very day that I bought my new walking shoes and am only now getting to wear them.

Like most folks, I have learned that I can’t always do it all or not all at once. So, this may not be the year I lace up my shoes and walk the entire California coast from Mexico to Oregon.

A walk of a lifetime.

A walk of a lifetime.

It can be the year, however, that I walk some of it. It can be the year that I ask more of my body and my mind than I did last year. I can walk wherever I happen to be and notice people, smells, colors. I can set goals for distance and miles walked.

I’m aiming for 800 miles or about 15 miles a week by foot. I don’t know where I’ll walk, only that I will walk. I will leave the car at home more often and use my feet to get to places I need to be. I will walk in places I know and places I’ve never been, starting here in my own city. When I walk, I will not listen to music or talk on the telephone. I will look, feel, think, seek encounters. I will smile at strangers. I will open myself up to possibility. I will take one step at a time and maybe, at some point, it will become clear to me why I am walking and where I am going.

Selfishly, I know that reading what others can teach me about their own desire to feed body, soul, mind, or art by walking will help me get out the door on those days when it is hard to imagine leaving my desk. Maybe you have a long-held dream to walk the Camino de Santiago, or to walk from Maine to Washington along the border with Canada. Maybe you are walking that walk right now. Maybe you take people on walking tours for a living. Maybe you are a photographer who ventures by foot to nearby or hard-to-reach places to bring back images that tell a story. Maybe you are one of those people who know how to notice the the world in the course of an amble from your door to your mailbox.

With this post, I am creating space on my blog for dispatches from the journey, not just mine but for anyone with a story or thoughts to share about your journey. Progress. Things learned. The planning process. A poem. Discoveries. Meditations. The flowers, animals, people you encounter along the way. Books that inspired you, guided you.

I am going to look for you and link to your posts or reblog them here. I also invite you to get in touch, let me know about your walking journey and write a post here or send me a link to a post from your own blog and I will happily reblog. If you are a photographer and want to share the sights you captured along the way with more folks, let’s connect. This invitation goes out to men, women, old, and young. Anyone with two feet, a walk or desire to undertake one, and a desire to share the journey.

At least once a month, I will post in the new section “Walkers: Dispatches from the Journey.” Hope to catch you along the way.

P.S. Happy New Year! Whatever your hopes and intentions for 2015, may you find them in the months ahead.

Wild Women Walking

When I set out to write this essay, I thought I was going to write a droll list of reasons why I could never have written a book like WILD.

My now dog-eared copy of WILD

My now dog-eared copy of WILD

The list would have included a story about me, a boyfriend from the city, the field behind my parents’ house which shone brightly under the full harvest moon that Labor Day — and what we swore later was a bear. We swore a lot as we raced naked from the beast to the mudroom of my parents’ house where the boyfriend greeted my parents the next morning wearing nothing but a parka and his Yankees hat. Yes, a bear was breathing down our necks and he managed to grab his Yankees hat.

I’ll have to save that story for another day.

I just read WILD again and realized that a discussion of the book deserves more honesty from me.

I am embarrassed to say that the first time I read WILD I was distracted by Cheryl Strayed’s lack of preparation for her journey. I was annoyed by her ignorance about how much to carry, what size boots to wear, how to use a compass — the very things that led to some of the story’s most dramatic moments. I found myself sitting in judgment of her choices when it came to drugs, to sex, to putting down her mother’s ancient horse with the inexpert help of her brother and husband instead of begging, borrowing or stealing the money to use a vet. I found myself cringing at the emotion that trickled, then raged like a river bursting through a dam.

As if I knew for one minute what one would need to carry or wear on an 1,100 mile trek. As if I had never had reckless sex or  stood at a crossroads in my twenties. As if I had never considered for one minute walking out my door, getting in whatever car was running at the moment, and driving until I ran out of gas, and then just walked away from that too.

Not a lot of preparation involved in that scenario.

In my case, there was a child involved. I would not, could not leave him. Ever. In many ways, he became the compass, the navigator for the journey I had chosen. And in all honesty, back then, I would never have thought about hiking 1,100 miles through desert, mountains, snow, rivers.

These days, I think about it. I won’t necessarily do it, but I think about it. Or rather, I think about walking my own version of this journey.

As I read WILD for the second time, I realized my harsh judgments were rooted in a part of me I don’t like to visit very much. It is the place where I stash fear, envy, resentments, and regret. It is the place where I keep the young woman I was and can’t always forgive. I like to keep my distance from her. She embarrasses me. She can hurt me with memories of all the things I did to hurt her and others who loved me.

I retrieved WILD from my bookshelf after watching a small movie, Redwood Highway, about an older woman who walks from her assisted living community center to the Oregon Coast.

Their stories differ considerably. For one thing, Cheryl Strayed really did hike 1,100 miles through desert, mountains, rivers. Redwood Highway is fiction and the character played by Shirley Knight walks only 80 miles along a single road, detouring off the pavement into the woods to camp. Cheryl Strayed was 26. Shirley Knight’s character was in her seventies. The film based on Strayed’s book is going to make millions. Shirley Knight is the only good thing about Redwood Highway, a low-budget affair with uneven writing and a weak plot.

However, each story shows us a woman who sets out alone on a journey that demands much from her body and spirit but makes no promises about what it will deliver. Each woman experiences the wildness of packing a bag, slipping free of the people who would make her stay, and just starts walking because she understands that’s what she needs even if she doesn’t understand why.

In neither case were the women adequately prepared for all that came their way but both were ready. Each woman’s journey was hard, physical, and put her into direct, unshielded contact with nature, humans, and her own demons. We don’t get many stories like this with women at the heart of them, and we don’t get many about older women using their bodies to heal themselves by undergoing an ordeal. I was grateful for that story and I was grateful for the chance to go back and sink into WILD one more time, to walk with a young woman in places I may never see and see them through her eyes, to follow her memories as she faced her losses, made mistakes, made decisions she had to make. I remembered my own twenties with more forgiveness and empathy.

As I read WILD, I remembered reading DRINKING THE RAIN by Alix Kates Schulman. My mother read it and gave it to me back in the late Eighties: At 50, Schulman also walks but only on the Maine island she escapes to for a year, living as simply as possible without electricity, plumbing, cars, or the stimulation of her family and life in Brooklyn. I wonder now if my mother was trying to tell me something about her own need to feel what it was like to walk away, to test herself against the elements. I wonder if she was responding to a need she sensed in me.

Here is what I think now after reading WILD for the second time and remembering all of these stories: there are times when a woman needs to walk and to walk alone. She may not hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or live on shellfish and seaweed on a remote Maine island, or even walk 80 miles down a paved highway bearing a load of memories that are far heavier than the pack on her back. She still needs to do it. She needs to walk from the world she knows into one that is foreign and strange and scary. She needs to let in the wind, rain, sun, and to feel the blisters on her feet harden. She needs to let her body lead her sometimes and to trust it no matter her age.

She needs stories like WILD, and Redwood Highway and DRINKING THE RAIN to remind her of what she can do.

Then she needs — I need — to start walking.

Old Yeller and The Repo Man: Thanksgiving 1986

The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.

The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.

“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”

I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”

His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?

“School,” he says. “Where else?”

“What else are you learning?”

“Can we just watch the movie?”

So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.

By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.

By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.

The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.

Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.

I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.

All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.

I plan to do something with it someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Thing

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 “He never knew when it was coming.”

I learned last week that there is one thing about me my husband would change if he could.

Not the size of my breasts.

Not my inability to control myself around a bag of corn chips.

Not the way I start reading his library books before he is finished with them, or try to kiss him when I am still wet from the shower, or my lax attitude towards filling the car’s gas tank. He wouldn’t make me younger, older, or smarter, or funnier — which is saying something because I never get his jokes and can’t remember punch lines.

He would, though, put me in a coma, open up my cranium, and reach deep into my brain to find the switch that is responsible for my sneeze so he could disarm it.

My sneeze, he says, shrieks through him like a three-second hurricane, leaves him shuddering, makes him wonder about me in ways that, if I let myself think about it, might find disturbing.

So I don’t.

I do, however, make an effort now. I not only cover, I run from the room. I try to keep the sneeze all in my nose so when it detonates the only sound he hears is my whimpering as my sinuses implode.

This is a public service message. The marriage you save may be your own.

At least I do not sound like a chicken. Here is a chicken sneezing:

By the way, did you know that…

Sneezing does NOT stop your heart (although it may bring the hearts of those nearby to a screeching halt)?

You can sneeze at 100 miles per hour?

People can’t sneeze in their sleep but some sneeze when they pluck their eyebrows?

For these and other fun facts about the big Ah-Choo click here.